The other Libyan war looks like a stalemate, too
None of the international players competing for influence in this crisis has the will to run an air war, never mind re-colonise Libya.
There are two wars being fought over Libya: there is the civil war between the Gaddafi regime and the rebels, chasing one another up and down that single coastal road; and then there is the international conflict among all of the different states and institutions hoping to exploit the Libyan crisis for their own ends.
Right now, both of these conflicts look like stilted stalemates being played out within elites, where nobody seems capable of acting decisively of their own accord. They appear to be wars without winners. The militarised stunt that is the Western no-fly zone looks in danger of turning Libya into a no-win zone.
The state of the small-scale civil war within Libya remains difficult to assess with much confidence. But there is a clear danger of the revolt against Gaddafi degenerating into an attempted coup by dissenters from within the regime. Thus Gadaffi’s former interior minister now appears to have appointed himself head of the rebel forces endorsed by the West, whilst other former officials jockey for position. Meanwhile the battle itself has often been reduced to an almost farcical televised spectacle of ragtag rebel forces charging up and down that road in civilian cars without much lasting effect. This faltering of the uprising is a consequence not simply of a lack of heavy weapons, but of the absence of any clear political leadership or military strategy among the rebels, and their increasing dependency on Western air-strikes – at a time when those strikes have been significantly reduced.
That brings us to a similar stalemate among warring elites in the international conflict over Libya. All of the foreign players want a piece of the diplomatic action for reasons that have little or nothing to do with any concern for the Libyan people. Instead Libya has become the backdrop for another struggle for influence among the global powers. But this is a modern inter-imperialist rivalry with a difference. It is not old-fashioned colonialism, nor is it a ‘war for oil’, or any attempted new ‘carve-up of Africa’.
Instead this looks like history re-run as farce. From the USA to the UK, France and beyond, all of the global players are engaged in a game of one-upmanship over Libya on the diplomatic stage, trying to appear the most pro-democracy or anti-Gaddafi (especially those states that until recently were his friends). Yet none of these powers has the nerve or the political will to assume leadership of the international effort or get too much involved in Libya itself.
They are all engaged instead in PR imperialism, seeking to improve their international image without taking too many risks, in the process casting long shadows over Libya’s future without getting bogged down in a real war. The creation of a long-distance no-fly zone symbolised this ambivalence about intervention. The last thing any of these chicken-hearted former colonial powers want is to take responsibility for re-colonising Libya. Thus the more they have talked up the international effort over the past week, the less they have actually been doing in terms of missions and air-strikes. This is definitely not down to any military or logistical problems, but to a crisis of political leadership in the West.
The most striking example of this is of course in America, self-proclaimed leader of the free world in the post-Second World War age. As previously explained on spiked, President Obama has been keen to lay down a new moral marker to the world by talking up the US commitment to liberating Libya. Yet in practice his only clear war aim has been to keep America out of a war. Brendan O’Neill’s suggestion that the US military engagement in Libya would be little more than a 24-hour exercise in imperialist intervention proved rather more accurate than those predicting ‘another Iraq’. So we have witnessed the surreal situation of the US air force packing away its bombs and ending its air-strikes on Libyan targets at the precise moment that its supposed allies on the ground have been crying out for more.
Elsewhere, President Sarkozy of France and UK prime minister David Cameron have been to the fore in the international sabre-rattling over Libya, each trying to bolster their image on the world stage at times of domestic crisis (with the assistance of those naive liberal interventionists who would not trust Cameron to keep open their local library yet seem to have full confidence in his capacity to liberate Libya). But for all their big talk, neither the French nor the British have the means or the authority to lead a war against Libya; it was pointed out in the house of commons this week that the depleted Royal Air Force has been responsible for only eight per cent of the meagre total of missions flown over Libya to date.
Instead of international leadership, the key word over Libya has been multilateralism, the need for all nations to come together to help. This might sound like some sort of 1970s Coke advert about teaching the world to sing in harmony. In reality it is more about the Western nations clinging together for safety, none of them willing to stick their necks outside the thin comfort blanket provided by the United Nations Security Council or NATO or the new Contact group set up to cope with the Libyan crisis – the latter a mess of up to 40 states, large and small with competing interests, that looks likely to come up with the usual ineffective plan designed by a committee.
The international players look like a group of schoolboys trying to work up the nerve for a playground fight, each nudging each other forward with brave words whilst trying to hide behind somebody else. The result of this exercise is that everybody wants a piece of the rhetorical action over Libya, but nobody really wants to get stuck in. The result is the worst of all worlds: half-hearted imperialist intervention without purpose that offers the Libyans nothing more than confusion, disillusionment and a loss of control over their own destinies. Hence once the former colonial power France had tried to score a point by recognising the rebels first, the other former colonialist Italy quickly followed suit – then urged its new allies to do a deal with Gaddafi.
The new boy in the international playground is Turkey. Having been barred by France from the first meeting to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, as part of Sarkozy’s campaign to keep them out of the EU circle, the Turks have now emerged as important regional players seeking a peace deal. Contrary to the scare stories about Turkey becoming ‘another Iran’, this shows the Islamic government in Turkey playing the role that Washington has hoped to see it fulfil, as a Muslim member of NATO and gateway between the West and the East.
Nevertheless the emergence of Turkey in the Libyan conflict, in defiance of France and the EU, demonstrates the old Western powers’ loss of grip over events in regions such as north Africa and the Middle East that they once ruled. In their desperation to find some legitimacy for their Libyan adventure, they have been reduced to hiding behind the fig leaf of the Arab League of tyrants. Even that support from their traditional Arab allies and dependents has been lukewarm, however; and nobody wants to mention the small matter of the other regional body, the African Union, failing even to turn up for the West’s big international meetings on Libya.
The messy and opaque stalemate between weak and ineffective forces on the ground in Libya is caricatured on a global scale by the stalemate and stasis among the feeble international players. Unless something dramatic happens we can expect more posturing and less progress down the road to real democracy. No doubt this will lead to shrill demands in the West for more concerted intervention. But the Libyan people would be far better served by us demanding that our governments end all air-strikes and talk of intervention and stop playing their games of PR imperialism with a region’s future.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.